A rain shower fell on the field at Cliff Hagan Stadium on Thursday morning as Gary Henderson sat in Kentucky’s home dugout, the same dugout where he had worked the past 13 seasons, five as the head baseball coach, and talked what about it was like to be out of work.
“I don’t know if it’s six weeks or six months or 12 months,” Henderson said, “but you just get to a spot, you’re 55 years old, you’ve been doing it for 30 years, you work 355 days a year, they’re 80-to-100 hour work weeks and I just got to a spot where I knew I just needed a little bit of time away.”
Tuesday morning, the day after UK failed to make the NCAA Baseball Tournament for the second consecutive season, Henderson woke up with his mind made up. He submitted his resignation to Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart.
As associate head coach under John Cohen, Henderson helped UK to the 2006 SEC title. As head coach, his teams won 258 games in eight seasons, including 30 or more wins each of the last five — a school record. They reached the NCAA Tournament in 2012 and 2014. The 2012 team won a school-record 22 straight games, earning a three-week stay at No. 1 in the national rankings as Henderson won SEC Coach of the Year honors.
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“The league title, that’s a huge deal,” said Henderson. “The competitiveness and the leadership of the older kids (in 2012), being ranked No. 1 in the country for three weeks, the 22-game win streak, those are the top but they’re not the only ones. We had a lot of really good people play baseball here.”
All accomplished under difficult circumstances. That’s me saying that, not Gary Henderson. But UK baseball is a lot like UK football, programs without much tradition trying to succeed in an ultra-competitive conference.
“I think Gary did a very good job considering how difficult it is to contend consistently anywhere in the SEC, but especially at Kentucky, where there are significant disadvantages with facilities and weather relative to the rest of the league,” Aaron Fitt, national writer for D1Baseball.com, said via email Thursday. “The Wildcats were competitive every year under Henderson, and they made some regionals — compare that to what Tennessee and Georgia have done with considerably more built-in advantages, and I think it reflects very well on Henderson.”
I think Gary did a very good job considering how difficult it is to contend consistently anywhere in the SEC, but especially at Kentucky, where there are significant disadvantages with facilities and weather relative to the rest of the league.
Aaron Fitt, D1Baseball.com analyst
The way Henderson went about his job reflected well on UK, too. He was thoughtful, no-nonsense, a pro. By his own admission, Henderson wasn’t full of showmanship. He didn’t try to be anything other than himself.
He semi-joked Thursday that all people care about now was who would take his place. He declined to offer advice for his successor — “I haven’t really thought about it,” he said — but reiterated how much he appreciated Barnhart’s support. He repeated the decision to step down was 100 percent his own.
“As for candidates, I think Kentucky should be able to attract some very strong candidates,” said Fitt, “because it is an SEC job and those are coveted.”
Fitt mentioned Greg Goff, former UK pitching coach now head coach at Louisiana Tech; Brian Green, former UK assistant now New Mexico State head coach; John Szefc at Maryland; Chris Lemonis at Indiana; Ty Neal at Cincinnati; Jeff Waggoner at Marshall; and former UK assistant Brad Bohannon, now an assistant at Auburn. No matter the hire, challenges remain.
“Frankly I don’t know that it’s reasonable to expect Kentucky to make the NCAA Tournament every year given how dedicated every school in that conference is to fielding a strong baseball program,” Fitt said. “Until they really invest in their facilities, I just don’t think they should expect more from a coach than Henderson delivered.”
For the time being, the now former coach will spend more time with his wife, Vicki, and his teenage son, Ty, here in Lexington while his oldest son, Alex, 30, pursues a baseball coaching career out west. But Gary Henderson is too good a coach, his track record too strong, especially with pitchers, to be out of that dugout too long.
“I’ll coach again,” he said. “I’m the one with the 14-year-old at home who’s going to college. I’m not done working.”
Possible coaching candidates for UK baseball
Brad Bohannon: ABCA/Baseball America Assistant Coach of the Year in 2015, Bohannon spent 12 years as an assistant coach at UK before going to Auburn under new coach Butch Thompson for the 2016 season. A native of Rome, Ga., Bohannon served as recruiting coordinator during his time at UK under John Cohen and Gary Henderson.
Greg Goff: UK pitching coach from 1999-2003 is current head coach at Louisiana Tech, where his team went 40-18 overall, 19-11 in Conference USA and is playing in the 2016 NCAA Tournament. The 45-year-old was head coach at Montevallo from 2004-07 where he went 152-84. (Montevallo is alma mater of DeWayne Peevy, UK’s deputy director of athletics.) Before going to Louisiana Tech, Goff was 224-174 in seven seasons as head coach at Campbell.
Brian Green: Was an assistant at UK for six seasons before returning to his alma mater, New Mexico State, as head coach in 2015. He was UK’s offensive coordinator in 2014 when AJ Reed set school and national hitting records. After going 11-38-1 in 2015, New Mexico State rebounded to finish 34-23 overall and 20-7 in the WAC in 2016.
Chris Lemonis: Assistant at Louisville under Dan McDonnell from 2007 through 2014, Lemonis has been the head coach at Indiana the past two seasons, going 67-48 overall and 27-19 in the Big Ten. He was the ABCA/Baseball America Assistant Coach of the Year in 2013.
Ty Neal: Longtime assistant at Miami (Ohio) and Indiana under Tracy Smith, Neal has been the head coach at Cincinnati the past three seasons. After going 37-72 in a rebuilding effort the first two years, the Bearcats were 26-30-1 overall and 13-10-1 in the American Athletic Conference this year.
John Szefc: Former assistant at Kansas and Kansas State has been head coach at Maryland the past four seasons. Maryland went 30-26 overall and 13-11 in the Big Ten this past season. Szefc was head coach at Marist from 1996 through 2002, winning 209 games. He is 142-98 at Maryland.
Jeff Waggoner: Has been head coach at Marshall since 2007 where his teams have gone 231-310-1. His 2016 team finished 34-21 overall and 21-9 in Conference-USA. Waggoner was an assistant at Kent State and North Carolina State before going to Huntington.